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Brief Enquiries

How did you become Ethiopia’s first female Professor, Ms Mekonnen?

When I went to Germany in 1988 to do my dissertation, that was totally unusual for a woman from Ethiopia. Girls were allowed to go to school, certainly, but women in research? “A married woman with a family belongs at home” was the traditional notion. And I even left my adolescent children behind with my husband. Luckily, he and my family have always supported me.

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  • Text: Mareike Ilsemann
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PROFESSOR DR YALEMTSEHAY MEKONNEN teaches Cell and Human Physiology in the College of Natural Sciences at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. From 2001 to 2002, she was a Georg Forster Research Fellow at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

The illustration shows Professor Dr Yalemtsehay Mekonnen
Yalemtsehay Mekonnen

Time has passed since then, and a lot has changed with regard to education and careers for women in Ethiopia. Nowadays, 30 percent of first-year students are female. Sadly, many drop out of university when they get married. So much potential gets lost! That is why I think it is right to implement measures to promote women, at least temporarily. At my university, for example, we have lowered the grades for university entrance slightly in order to recruit more women. This is designed to compensate for any disadvantages during their schooling. Gender parity is a fine goal, but a distant one.

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We want to take this topic of diversity beyond the limits of the Humboldt Kosmos magazine. Let’s talk about it! We look forward to sharing your thoughts or your own experiences on #ProgressDiversity.

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I always enjoyed going to school. My parents never discriminated between boys and girls. For me, learning new things is an inherent need. My maxim is that you have to at least try everything in order to make progress. My determination has always stood me in good stead – and the fact that I do not let myself be deterred easily. I am proud that I was the first woman in Ethiopia to be granted the title of professor in 2009. As a role model, promoting women is more than close to my heart. That is why, as chair holder, I took on responsibility for the Gender Office in the science faculty at Addis Ababa University. My door is always open to the topic. “Keep at it! Try everything! Be flexible, persistent and, if all else fails, even diplomatic! Don’t give up!” is my message to women.

Where I can, I open the way for them. If there is a position to be filled, I would prioritise an excellent woman over an excellent man. It is important to remember that in Ethiopia and other African countries promoting women does not just relate to non-material values like diversity, gender equality and individual self-determination. Access to higher education is quite simply a social necessity. We need well-educated women in highly qualified professions in order to continue developing our country technologically and socially. Women are our future!

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